ROCKLAND — Rockland City Council members received an earful of emotional, hour-long testimony and demands by neighbors for moratoriums and code changes to prevent a prisoner re-entry house from getting established on Talbot Avenue in Rockland.
Last week, the house at 215 Talbot Ave was purchased with the intention of providing temporary housing for former inmates, according to the house’s neighbors. The neighbors are wary of who may reside there, as well as the potential decrease in their own property values.
A next-door neighbor to the proposed re-entry house on Talbot Avenue stood at the City Council podium during the public comment section of the regularly-scheduled Monday, June 10, Council meeting, and wept.
The topic was not on the agenda, and prior to the meeting, Councilors had no knowledge of the building’s sale or its intended use.
Based on Rockland’s codes and ordinances, the proposed use of a single-house dwelling and its occupants meet all City requirements. There is no need for the new owner to go before the Planning Board, no need to present proposals for use, no need to analyze zoning, and – to the anger of neighbors – no need to inform the public of who would be moving in.
The woman at the podium described how, in as few as three weeks from now, her two children – a two-year-old and five-year-old – may be playing as close as 10 feet from ex prisoners.
Because the new owner of the proposed re-entry venture found a loophole in Rockland’s housing ordinance, the City Council has no immediate solution. The loophole is that, in Rockland, four adults, unrelated to each other, can live together in a single household regardless of who they are and what impact they may have on the neighborhood.
Although those participating in the re-entry program and living in the house would be doing so temporarily – four to six months, paying rent, and will be supervised by a hired employee, conditional use zoning or lodging facility status does not apply.
Families in the neighborhood questioned safety. One family had learned of the purchase, Friday, June 7. They, in turn, informed others along the street by knocking on doors in the morning of Monday, June 10. The City Manager also learned about the re-entry home on June 7, as well.
The neighborhood, according to some who took the podium, used to be a safe area. And though residents stated general support for restorative justice, they also stated that Talbot Avenue was not an appropriate location. If for no other reason, placing ex prisoners among hostile neighbors wouldn’t help them or anyone else.
The head of nearby retirement community Bartlett Woods spoke of thousands of dollars spent, and a year’s worth of effort made when the organization wanted to expand a few years ago. Rockland code required them to notify neighbors, which is not a requirement for single-household living, and therefore the re-entry house.
The senior facility also rode the ups and downs of Council meetings, changes in requirements, and easing of neighborhood concerns.
At times, Bartlett Woods executive director Mary Eads wanted to give up the expansion effort. Yet, Rockland needed a senior facility, and it also provided jobs.
Now, she fears that the re-entry house will deter interest in the senior residential facility.
“Our family is devastated,” said Suzanne MacDonald. “as I’m sure each of yours would be if you had young children, grandkids, an elderly mother or grandmother living alone near this property. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I don’t want to live there. I don’t want to take the risk. It’s my job – I can be a social activist all day long – my job now is to be a mom. Mom’s don’t go looking for things like this 10 feet from where their children ride their bikes. We have been told we will not be able to sell our homes. We will not be able to make enough money to buy at the height of market.”
In response, Councilors initially said there was nothing that the City could do, and neighbors should appeal to the Maine Department of Corrections.
By the end of the conversation, however, they agreed to contact the city attorney and research possible avenues, as well as attempt to contact state officials.
During the day, June 10, City Manager Tom Luttrell and City Code Enforcement Officer John Root attempted to contact the new owner of 215 Talbot Avenue, but were unsuccessful.
Council members expressed understanding and sympathy for what the Talbot neighborhood is facing. Councilor Ben Dorr stated that if he weren’t up at his council desk, he’d be down in the audience right along with the crowd.
Said Councilor Valli Geiger: “I do notice that Rockland is having an increasing number of group homes that don’t appear to have to go through the kinds of things any of us have to go through if we add a garage or decide to do a short term rental. And I agree that this feels like a giant loophole....Whether it’s our loophole, or the state’s loophole, I don’t know. But I’m certainly willing to work with the City to figure that out and change it if I can.”
Reach Sarah Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org